The End of Theory: Financial Crises, the Failure of Economics, and the Sweep of Human Interaction

The End of Theory: Financial Crises, the Failure of Economics, and the Sweep of Human Interaction

by Richard Bookstaber


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The End of Theory: Financial Crises, the Failure of Economics, and the Sweep of Human Interaction by Richard Bookstaber

An in-depth look at how to account for the human complexities at the heart of today’s financial system

Our economy may have recovered from the Great Recession—but not our economics. The End of Theory discusses why the human condition and the radical uncertainty of our world renders the standard economic model—and the theory behind it—useless for dealing with financial crises. What model should replace it? None. At least not any version we’ve been using for the past two hundred years. Richard Bookstaber argues for a new approach called agent-based economics, one that takes as a starting point the fact that we are humans, not the optimizing automatons that standard economics assumes we are. Sweeping aside the historic failure of twentieth-century economics, The End of Theory offers a novel perspective and more realistic framework to help prevent today's financial system from blowing up again.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691169019
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 05/02/2017
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 411,797
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Richard Bookstaber has overseen risk management at investment banks Morgan Stanley and Salomon Brothers, as well as major hedge funds such as Moore Capital and Bridgewater. He has held positions at the U.S. Treasury, and is currently at the University of California. He is the author of A Demon of Our Own Design (Wiley).

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The End of Theory

Financial Crises, the Failure of Economics, and the Sweep of Human Interaction

By Richard Bookstaber


Copyright © 2017 Richard Bookstaber
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-16901-9


Crises and Sunspots

During a visit to the London School of Economics as the 2008 financial crisis was reaching its climax, Queen Elizabeth asked the question that no doubt was on the minds of many of her subjects: "Why did nobody see it coming?" The response, at least by the University of Chicago economist Robert Lucas, was blunt: Economics could not give useful service for the 2008 crisis because economic theory has established that it cannot predict such crises. As John Kay writes, "Faced with such a response, a wise sovereign will seek counsel elsewhere." And so might we all.

England's royal family is no stranger to financial crises, or to the evolution of economic thought that such crises have spawned. Our standard economic model, the neoclassical model, was forged in Victorian England during a time of industrial and economic revolutions — and the crises and the cruel social and economic disparities that came with them. This economic approach arose because the classical political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo failed in this new reality. The neoclassical model was championed by the Englishman William Stanley Jevons, who experienced the effects of these crises firsthand, and was prepared to bring new tools to the job. Jevons was the first modern economist, introducing mathematics into the analysis and initiating what became known as the marginalist revolution — a huge leap forward that reshaped our thinking about the values of investment and productivity. Nonetheless, despite all the areas in which Jevons's approach improved our thinking, the economic model he originated still failed to predict or elucidate crises. We can make a start in understanding the limitations in the current standard economic approach to financial crises, and what to do about them, by looking at the path Jevons took in mid-nineteenth-century England.

This economic revolution was driven by a technical one. The railroad was the disruptive technology. It reached into every aspect of industry, commerce, and daily life, a complex network emanating from the center of the largest cities to the remotest countryside. Railroads led to, in Karl Marx's words, "the annihilation of space by time" and the "transformation of the product into a commodity." A product was no longer defined by where it was produced, but instead by the market to which the railroad transported it. The railroad cut through the natural terrain, with embankments, tunnels, and viaducts marking a course through the landscape that changed perceptions of nature. For passengers, the "railway journey" filled nineteenth-century novels as an event of adventure and social encounters. Railroads were also the source of repeated crises. Then as now, there was more capital chasing the dreams of the new technology than there were solid places to put it to work. And it was hard to find a deeper hole than the railroads. Many of the railroad schemes were imprudent, sometimes insane projects, the investments often disappearing without a trace. The term railway was to Victorian England what atomic or aerodynamic were to be after World War II, and network and virtual are today. When it came to investments, the romantic appeal of being a party to this technological revolution often dominated profit considerations. Baron Rothschild quipped that there are "three principal ways to lose your money: wine, women, and engineers. While the first two are more pleasant, the third is by far more certain." Capital invested in the railway seemed to be the preferred course to the third. Those with capital to burn were encouraged by the engineers whose profits came from building the railroads, and who could walk away unconcerned about the bloated costs that later confronted those actually running the rail. A mile of line in England and Wales cost five times that in the United States. The run of investor profits during the manias of the cycle were lost in the slumps that unerringly followed. One down-cycle casualty was Jevons's father, who was an iron merchant.

In 1848, in the midst of this revolution and its cycle of crises, the great economist and intellectual John Stuart Mill published his Principles of Political Economy, a monument to the long and rich tradition of classical political economy of Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, Thomas Robert Malthus, and David Ricardo. With this publication, economics reached a highly respectable, congratulatory dead end, the station of those in a staid gentlemen's club sitting in wing-back chairs, self-satisfied and awash in reflection. Economic theory then languished for the better part of the next two decades. Mill wrote that "happily, there is nothing in the laws of Value which remains for the present or any future writer to clear up; the theory of the subject is complete."

But over those two decades, with a backdrop of labor unrest and a rising footprint of poverty, cracks began to emerge in the pillars of Mill's theory. His economics failed to see the essential changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. He put labor front and center. The more labor used to produce a good, the greater that good's value. This was reasonable when production was driven by labor. But with the Industrial Revolution, capital could multiply the output of a laborer, and, furthermore, capital was not fixed. It could drive ever-increasing efficiency. At the same time, the supply of labor was brimming over the edges because many small landholders and agricultural workers moved to the cities as landholdings were consolidated through enclosures into more efficient large estates. The laborers were paid subsistence wages, while the economic benefit from the increased productivity was captured by those controlling the machinery, the capitalists.

For those whose success or luck of birth pushed them into the newly emerging business class, life was filled with promise and stability. Men would become gentlemen with country houses, providing an Oxbridge education for their sons. For the working class, life held something less. Henry Colman, a minister visiting the United Kingdom from America, reacted to the factory life he observed in the cities: "I have seen enough already in Edinburgh to chill one's blood, make one's hair stand on end. Manchester is said to be as bad, and Liverpool still worse. Wretched, defrauded, oppressed, crushed human nature lying in bleeding fragments all over the face of society. Every day that I live I thank heaven that I am not a poor man with the family in England." The clergyman Richard Parkinson wrote with irony that he once ventured to designate Manchester as the most aristocratic town in England because "there is no town in the world where the distance between the rich and the poor is so great, or the barrier between them so difficult to be crossed."

The Birth of Modern Economics

Industrial age economics moved away from Mill in two directions. The one traveled by Marx, based on historical analysis and with a focus on the human consequences of the dominance of capital, fomented revolution that would engulf the world. The other, based on mathematics, emulated the mechanics of the natural sciences while ignoring the human aspect completely, forming the foundation for today's standard economic model, that of neoclassical economics. This was the way pushed forward by William Stanley Jevons.

To say that the development of the neoclassical approach ignored the human aspect is to say that it was a product of its times. Arithmetic, writes the historian Eric Hobsbawm, was the fundamental tool of the Industrial Revolution. The value of an enterprise was determined by the operations of addition and subtraction: the difference between buying price and selling price; between revenue and cost; between investment and return. Such arithmetic worked its way into the discourse and analysis of politics and morals. The simple calculations of arithmetic could express the human condition. The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed that pleasure and pain could be expressed as quantities, and pleasure minus pain was the measure of happiness. Add the happiness across all men, deduct the unhappiness, and the government that produces the greatest net happiness for the greatest number has de facto applied the best policy. It is an accounting of humanity, producing its ledger of debit and credit balances.

This formed the starting point of Jevons's Theory of Political Economy: a quantitative analysis of the feelings of pleasure and pain. Of the seven Benthamite circumstances associated with pleasure and pain, Jevons selected intensity and duration as the most fundamental dimensions of feeling. Clearly, "every feeling must last some time, and ... while it lasts, it may be more or less acute and intense." The quantity of feeling, then, is just the product of its intensity and duration: "The whole quantity would be found by multiplying the number of units of intensity into the number of units of duration. Pleasure and pain, then, are magnitudes possessing two dimensions, just as an area or superficies possesses the two dimensions of length and breadth."

Jevons was a polymath who started in the pure sciences and mathematics. He studied for two years at University College in London, winning a gold medal in chemistry and top honors in experimental philosophy. He left before graduating to take a post as an assayer in Sydney, Australia, for the new mint, stopping on the way to study in Paris, receiving a diploma from the French mint. While in Australia he expanded his interests beyond chemistry and mathematics, exploring the local flora, geology, and weather patterns. In fact, for a time he was the only recorder of weather in Sydney. He also wrote a manuscript for a book on music theory. His interest moved from meteorology and music into economics as he became engaged in the economic travails of the New South Wales railway, which no doubt echoed his family's financial travails. He found an immediate affinity for the subject, which he wrote "seems mostly to suit my exact method of thought." He wrote in 1856 that, as his interests moved to this new area, he felt he was "an awful deserter" of "subjects for which I believe I am equally well or even better suited" and he doubted that "I shall ever be able to call myself a scientific man." In fact, Jevons did remain engaged in mathematics and logic, and in 1874 would publish The Principles of Science, which, among other things, laid out the relationship between inductive and deductive logic, and treated the use of cryptography, including the factorization problem that is currently used in public key cryptography. But his formal studies moved from pure science to political economy. In 1859, after five years in Australia, he returned to University College to study political economy, where he won a Ricardo scholarship and a gold medal for his master of arts.

He poured himself into his new focus of study, and by the following year had already discovered the idea of marginal utility. He wrote to his brother that "in the last few months I have fortunately struck out what I have no doubt is the true theory of economy. ... One of the most important axioms is that as the quantity of any commodity, for instance plain food, which a man has to consume increases, so the utility or benefit from the last portion used decreases in degree." In another letter he expanded on this discovery, giving a succinct explanation of marginal theory and the implications of the relationship between profits and capital: "The common law is that the demand and supply of labor and capital determine the division between wages and profits. But I shall show that the whole capital employed can only be paid for at the same rate as the last portion added; hence it is the increase of produce or advantage, which this last addition gives, that determines the interest of the whole."

Jevons wrote up his ideas in a paper, "A General Mathematical Theory of Political Economy," first presented in 1862, and these ideas gained broad notice with the publication of his 1871 book, The Theory of Political Economy. The temple of classical economics shuddered to a sudden collapse with this publication, which was as much a manifesto against the prevailing wisdom, a call to "fling aside, once and for ever, the mazy and preposterous assumptions of the Ricardian School," as it was a scientific treatise on economics theory.

Not long afterward, others were hot on the marginalist trail. And the concepts of marginal utility and the application of mathematical methods seemed to find precursors in many places, leading Jevons to complain that books were appearing "in which the principal ideas of my theory have been foreshadowed." He found himself in the "unfortunate position that the greater number of people think the theory nonsense, and do not understand it, and the rest discover that it is not new." Jevons gave up on the hope that he would be able to establish a first claim to the concepts, but took comfort that "the theory ... has in fact been discovered 3 or 4 times over and must be true."

Blinded by Sunspots: Jevons's Quest for a Scientific Cause of Crises

Jevons not only brought mathematical rigor to the field but also was the first economist to focus on the sources of economic crises. He had personal reasons for this focus. Not only had his father suffered a failure during the railroad bubble while Jevons was still a boy, but others in his extended family had suffered through similar difficulties. And he was brought up in Unitarian circles where social inequities were a point of concern. He was socially aware, and would take walks though the poor and manufacturing districts of London to observe social costs up close.

Jevons viewed an understanding of crises as the key test of economics. He believed that if economics could not explain market crises and "detect and exhibit every kind of periodic fluctuation," then it was not a complete theory. The inquiry into the causes of phenomena as complex as commercial crises could not approach the rigor or mathematical purity of a science unless Jevons purged this subject of all traces of human emotion, unless he assumed — even if he could not prove — that some physical cause was acting on events others might describe as socially driven. Without some observable natural phenomenon to serve as causal agent, commercial crises threatened to become uninterpretable, limiting the claim of economics to be a science.

Because Jevons patterned his economic methods after the scientific methods used for studying the natural world, he looked for a natural phenomenon as the anchor for his study of otherwise unexplainable crises. This led him to theorize that sunspots were the culprit. He was determined to link sunspot periodicity to the periodicity of commercial crises. And Britain had certainly been subject to them, most recently the 1845–1850 railway mania bubble, which, like all bubbles, did not end well.

Jevons's interest in sunspots was not mystical. He hypothesized that the success of harvests might be one of many causes that could precipitate a panic: "It is the abnormal changes which are alone threatening or worthy of very much attention. These changes arise from deficient or excessive harvests, from sudden changes of supply or demand in any of our great staple commodities, from manias of excessive investment or speculation, from wars and political disturbances, or other fortuitous occurrences which we cannot calculate upon and allow for." Jevons used a sunspot cycle that had been determined by earlier researchers to be 11.11 years. All that remained, then, was to show that the cycle for commercial crises followed a similar course. A simple attempt at matching the two came up short, but, convinced that this theory — attractive from the standpoint of bringing economics into the fold of the natural sciences — was correct, he looked past the contemporary data and reached back to data from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This attempt also failed, because data were scant on both sunspots and commercial cycles.

After extending his dataset across time failed to prove this theory, Jevons then cast a broader net geographically. He looked at records from India, with the argument that British commerce relied on agricultural activity and raw materials from its colony. This approach also failed. With a view that "the subject is altogether too new and complicated to take the absence of variation in certain figures as conclusive negative evidence," he continued to press forward, expanding the dataset to tropical Africa, America, the West Indies, and even the Levant, stretching the logic of including India, asserting that these parts of the globe also had a demonstrable effect on British commercial activity. In addition to his search for confirming data, he revised his eleven-year cycle, noting recent research that suggested a shorter cycle. His data refused to fit the alternative cycle, too.


Excerpted from The End of Theory by Richard Bookstaber. Copyright © 2017 Richard Bookstaber. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

I: Introduction 1

1 Crises and Sunspots 3

2 Being Human 14

II: The Four Horsemen 23

3 Social Interactions and Computational Irreducibility 25

4 The Individual and the Human Wave: Emergent Phenomena 34

5 Context and Ergodicity 40

6 Human Experience and Radical Uncertainty 50

7 Heuristics: How to Act Like a Human 65

III: Paradigm Past And Future 79

8 Economics in Crisis 81

9 Agent-Based Models 94

10 Agents in the Complexity Spectrum 108

IV: Agent-Based Models For Financial Crises 125

11 The Structure of the Financial System: Agents and the Environment 127

12 Liquidity and Crashes 144

13 The 2008 Crisis with an Agent-Based View 157

V: The End Of Theory 169

14 Is It a Number or a Story? Model as Narrative 171

15 Conclusion 185

Acknowledgments 191

Notes 193

References 211

Index 221

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